Habeas was not enjoying himself.
For four agonizing hours now had he been crawling through the walls of the house, all spent solely in rat form. Being a changeling, he was of course no stranger to the task of shapeshifting, but assuming so minuscule a form as this was not one of his strong points. He had been set as it for so long now, he could swear he was getting cramped by it. What surrounded him was little better. Beset by all manners of dust, the interior of the house's walls and areas beneath the floor was almost despondent. Dark and unwelcoming textures were abound, complimented by the accompanying odor of old wood, both damp and dry. Some of the myriad metallic parts of the interior were slippery with grime, others touched by the taint of rust.
And that wasn't the worst of it. Cobwebs, some still bearing the big fat spiders who originally made them, lined almost every corner or every space of the dark passageways within these walls. The silken constructs were great and small, some hanging loosely like tapestries woven and set up in ages long since passed, their designs grey and featureless. He had to cut through some of them with his little rat paws or long scaly tail in order to traverse the spaces. The experience never failed to send shivers down his little rat spine until he had torn through so many that he had grown used to the unsettling sensation.
The musty air, thick with the dust and other assorted floating debris, tugged not only at his acute nose, but at all of his senses relentlessly. Much like the cobwebs, the feeling of crawling through these confined spaces, even in the agile and well-suited form of a brown rat, was a most queer experience indeed. It almost made him feel as verminous as the breed of creature itself, skulking about with animal intent. It made him feel filthy. Every changeling sense still in his head was yelling distress, telling him to turn back to the comforts outside of these dark, cramped, labyrinthine conditions. But he would not. Still he pressed on, disregarding such trivial until he found the boggart's hideout, rediscovered his prize, and perhaps also dealt with the vicious little fiend for stealing it from him...
More time passed. He went through the walls, the floor, and the ceiling, then back to the walls. Nothing yet showed itself. Not one speck of evidence that something bigger than a mouse was living in these walls. Save more of what he had thus far witnessed, his gaze caught little to be noted. His heart was heavy with worry over this apparent futility. Surely, surely he would find something. If not the den or nest or whatever this boggart creature had formed for itself, then a sign, at least...
Then, he heard something.
As his doubts reached their zenith, Habeas' keen ears swiveled in the direction of a strange, new sound. It was not that of the wind seeping through the wall's cracks, or the creaking of the house, or the skittering of insects, or even the pitter-patter of another rat. It sounded like... breathing. Long, slow, heavy breathing, from a creature of at least his current size, or greater.
A lead? Habeas followed the sound, slipping his rat body through cracks and spaces between the wooden framework. He scampered and scrambled through the small spaces as well as his rodent self could afford, until he saw something that was, without a doubt, the last barrier between him and the source of the breathing. It was a hole in a plank of wood, its edges splintery, like sharp and wicked teeth had gnawed it into shape a long while ago. Quickly and quietly, he made his way for it. Without a moment to lose, he peered inside.
The moment his head poked through the hole, a sight of sights awaited Habeas. What he came to was an alarmingly vast chamber, carved into the wood of the walls with care few creatures possessed. The edges of this makeshift lair were bedecked in curling piles of straw and leaves, while more varied or torn strands littered the floor. Strewn or hung about was pilfered jewelry of all kinds, their gold, silver and copper surfaces somehow glittering in the low light of the cracks above; the gemstones that studded some of them, much more so. There were valuable porcelain trinkets, whole or broken. Pieces of dusty, gnawed-on toys and plastic buttons and paltry strips of colorful clothing or laces or ribbons were the most abundant things visible, some placed with care while others were not.
This was it. It had to be the boggart's nest. The way it looked, the stolen items, the care given no simple animal could give... yes! This was it! That was one of two things screaming through Habeas' excited head. And there was still the subject of the origin of the breathing that led Habeas to this location. He turned to see it after taking in all of his new immediate surroundings.
...And he saw it, in the leftmost corner of this repugnant nest. A bizarre being he had never before witnessed, never thought he would see until this day, snoozing without care on a bed of straw and coins and feathers and a variety of random debris. Even while laying down, this entity was plainly inches shorter than Habeas' rat form but twice as wide. Its rotund form was clad in ragged wares of miniature design, either sewn together from nothing or nabbed from dolls or both.
And next to it, as Habeas could see so plainly, was... the necklace. It was unmistakable. With a gilded chain extending from it, it had the same golden texture, and the same three diamonds encrusted upon its splendid heart-shaped surface. And it was being kept, hugged close, in the filthy embrace of this dirty, rancid creature that had the gall to steal it away from Habeas.
When next Habeas had his wits to steer his deeds, he was soaring through the air, teeth bared with a furious squeak echoing from his throat. He landed atop the prone, snoring boggart with a nameless clash that sounded only thunderous. His paws grabbed at the necklace while he continued making shrill cries into the long-nosed face of the miniature monster.
At the warcry and pounce concluded, the boggart's snoring came to an end. It opened its beady eyes, its entire expression snapping from relaxed unconsciousness to full, startled awareness. When it beheld the furry mass wrestling upon it, it shrieked. Its grasp on the necklace faltered for a moment, and that moment was all it took for Habeas to yank it back and hop off his foe.
He ran for the entrance, but he didn't get far. The boggart must have grabbed at the chain dragging behind the retreating changeling, as one sharp tug later, Habeas found himself being pulled back, back, and back some more. He spun about to find the boggart was growling and gurgling furiously, pacing with chain in hand until their positions were reversed; Habeas in the back, and the boggart near the hole. Habeas responded with a hiss and spun his rump wholly in its direction. With rapid flickering motions, his wormy tail whipped the entity in its ugly face.
The duress of the attack proved effective after only a few seconds. Finally it let go of the chain and wiped at its aching face with its little gnarled hands, admitting defeat to this strange little match of tug-of-war. Be that as it may, the creature had not given up. Instead it was pulling back, back to a pile of junk near the entrance. Its rotten teeth were bared, anger and clarity filling its ugly face when it removed its hands.
"I have your scent. You aren't a rat! You're that stinky changing-thing!" it squawked, pointing a small, dirty, accusing claw at the deceptively intelligent intruder within its domain. "You dare to presume you can steal from meeee?! Gunter Snagknot?!"
"Don't you dare. You stole this first! You stole all of this!" Habeas croaked, pulling the entirety of the necklace's chain behind him. He backed up to the boggart's bed, plotting desperately on how to escape but coming up with nothing immediate.
"Finders keepers, pally!" The boggart sneered. Chittering hatefully, it grabbed at a large silver coin sitting nearby, one caked entirely in dust and grime to the point that it looked more outwardly fuzzy than metallic. Hoisting it back, it flung the piece at Habeas with a force greater than its size would indicate. Habeas himself could only move to avoid the makeshift missile. His rodent agility serving him well, the coin passed him by by an inch, clattering loudly against something wooden behind him.
The verminous fey was still screaming as the attack concluded. "That jewely-thing is mine! It's the prettiest thing in this dumb house, and I want it! I stole it, fair and square!"
"It's not for you!" Habeas bellowed fiercely. His grip on the necklace tightened. "And it's not for me! I got that for someone else! If you think you can just take it from me and get away with it, you're sadly mistaken."
The boggart crouched and huffed skeptically. "Me? Gunter Snagknot, mistaken? As if anyone could want something so shiny as that than me..."
The dark hair bristled on Habeas' back. He prepared to fight, knowing the one way between freedom with the necklace was behind his enemy. His violent plans were set and about to be enacted, when he noticed something that made him halt. It was something blatant in the boggart's body language. Its guard was lowering and it rose up, its whiskered lips twitching curiously.
"Wait... No..." A smile, long and ugly, crept over his mouth. By the time it was literally spread from one ear to the other in its grotesque length, it was clear that he knew what was up. "No, you don't simply want it. You need it, don't you?"
Its eyes went from Habeas' face to the necklace. They widened, blinked, and shrunk in short succession. "You need it to make her your own, yes?"
He mentioned no names, yet Habeas knew all the same who he was speaking of. His twitchy, whiskered maw opening, he bared his sharp rodent fangs hatefully. The entity raised its hands easily, conveying well enough that he was done fighting for the necklace.
"I think," he grinned, "that we can play a game.
"Yes," the boggart nodded. "A game! Just a simple game, with a simple challenge, winner take all, no strings attached." He sauntered to the changeling from his side of the nest, no visible malicious intent in the motions of his stubby legs. "Wanna... make a little bet, buggy-boy? We boggarts aren't fond of making them, but this seems to be a more special occasion than most."
His guard still up, Habeas' head tilted suspiciously, and his rat-tail behind him swerved left and right. "What sort of bet?" he squeaked.
"A bet concerning your skill in courting that silly, maimed mare your heart so inanely craves."
There were few things that could enrage Habeas, much less get him to fuming in so swift a time. At that brutish comment, his spine arched, and he gave the densest, most hateful growl he could give. It was obvious the vulgar fey had heard it. Again Gunter raised his paws in a non-hostile display until the changeling calmed, which took some time to achieve.
When his foe had finally calmed, the boggart giggled and cleared his guttural throat. "I'll tell you how this works, buggy-boy: You have to take that pretty necklace and do with it what you got it for. Propose to the mare, string it about her neck, or whatnot. I'll give you one month to do it. A generous offer, I know, but given your performance so far... well, you'll need it."
Habeas heard this well, but he found himself perplexed by his part in the wager. The boggart only continued, his care for the changeling's confusion being evidently little in its abundance.
"If you accomplish this, if she says yes, if both of you mean it, you win. For winning, I'll... give you my services. I'll help about the house, I'll make your precious cropsies more fertile than they ever were until winter closes in, and I'll even protect the house from intruders. And after one whole year of this, I'll leave. Leave! Gone for good, gone away, gone, gone, gone. You'll never see me again, I swear it."
Now, that image showed much more clearly to Habeas. It almost tickled him. But... there had to be more to this. With that, cold skepticism snuffed out the warm thoughts. His rat ears twitched. Yes, there was something else, something downright foreboding, in this boggart's tone.
"But," he said to the creature, "there's a catch to this, isn't there?"
"Mmmmyes," hummed Gunter. He tapped his tiny fingers together, giving the throatiest of chuckles. "It's the best part: You can't tell her anything. Not about the bet, not about our meeting, and not about me or my nest. If you do, the game is over, and I win."
And there was the real question. "What happens if you win?"
"If I win, I get to stay here, forever. I get to live here, forever. My house, with my rules alone. In other words, I get to cause as much havoc as I'll ever want—and you, or your sweetheart can't ever do anything about it."
"We could still try to catch you, you know," Habeas pointed out. "I know where your lair is."
Gunter merely rose a claw and wove it about, tsking as he did. "Fooooolish changing-thing. You do not understand the gravity of this deal. A deal such as this goes beyond the realm of nature's laws. It would prevent me from being harmed by anything you, your mare, or anyone else living here can concoct, buggy-boy. Not poison, not traps, not nothing! Even stuff I normally can't get near. Stuff like iron."
"How?" Habeas asked.
"Fey magics work in strange ways, my insect-ish friend." That loathsome smile remained on Gunter, arrogant and foul. He shuffled his rotund form until he was but a few inches from Habeas. "I've given you the terms, and you know their proper gravity. Now, then... is it a deal?"
Habeas didn't know what to think. It would be difficult to escape this lair with the necklace, but this seemed to be an opportunity to do so, bloodlessly. He had no idea if what this creature said was even true, but whether or not it was, there was trouble brewing in his words.
"Your bet... it could cause more trouble than it, or you, are worth."
The boggart's long, pointy, impish nose twitched twice. "But you have a chance to get rid of that trouble, and far more than just it, don't you?"
"Mmm. True, true..." anxiously grunted Habeas. There was little denying that.
Gunter hummed positively. "You're not leaving here with the necklace if you say no. I'll use my powers to make sure of that. All you need do, to get out of here with your prize wholly intact, is shake my hand."
The creature extended its minuscule hand his way, its dirty claws so very visible in the low light of this lair. The changeling eyed it with suspicion. Even with the gesture, Habeas was still unsure.
"And all this is... the truth?"
"Abso-tibly, posi-lutely the truth! We boggarts may love the havoc we cause, but if there's one thing beneath even us, it's telling a filthy lie. So, I'll tell you this one final time: take a chance... roll the die."
The boggart's chirp evolved to a short and quiet snigger as he witnessed the changeling's indecisiveness. And Habeas was indecisive. He eyed the fey thing's appendage cautiously, so dirty and callous, hungering for the tricky deal it requested. It seemed so simple and easy to overcome, but in its beady eyes he saw the wisdom this verminous entity held, the knowing of Habeas' true weakness that could spell ultimate victory for it, instead of him. Then he looked to the necklace, the same jewel-encrusted gift he had hunted for in this horrid place. He had promised it to the most wonderful person he knew in this world. Now, it was something in his grasp again.
Light creaking sounds of the house briefly settling echoed around him, eerie as it was. There was so much more he could use this pendant for. It was the key to ridding the house of this repugnant fiend, yet also was it the trinket that could instead cause a great deal more suffering than what was already happening now. Habeas knew he was at an impasse, and the truest solution to his and Persica's troubles rested on one end of this double-edged sword. He sighed wearily.
What was he to do?
Persica was not enjoying herself.
Sure, the day was calm, if not in fact shaping up into something lovely. Outside was warm and sunny, but far from humid. The inside of the house was pleasantly cool. Everywhere seemed nice and orderly compared to the past few days. And yet, more than an anything, Persica was anxious.
Habeas the cause of this current conundrum, she thought. He had been gone for a while. The last time she saw him was as he slipped into the walls, off to try and discover the boggart's nest for her. He popped into the hole in the wall, scurried off, and was gone.
Persica tried to keep herself busy as she waited for his return, but the task was challenging. She washed the dishes twice over, even though the sink had few wares in need of cleaning. She briefly checked the garden and then the orchard, though there was not much to be done on either. She swept at some dust in the corner parts of the house, barely built up after Habeas himself swept and vacuumed the place to the bone not two days ago. Now she was sitting in the kitchen, alone, her gaze having fell to the sight of some colorful birds twittering around the peach grove outside the kitchen window. After all, all there was left to do was anxiously wait for her coltfriend's return. If he returned, anyway.
Perisca uttered a heavy sigh. It was about now that she was thinking about how she never should have let him go. He lacked the experience needed to deal with creatures like boggarts. Their ilk might not have been known for possessing enough might to truly harm, much less kill anything pony-sized, the fact stood that Habeas was more vulnerable in the form of a rat. But she had let him go, and away he was. She heard the pitter-patter of him moving from time to time within the house's interior; assuming that was him on any measure. Yet, for all her doubts, for the situation her beloved was in, she still knew Habeas was a competent creature. He was hardy, he was smart. Surely he would make it back to her. Surely...
Persica eventually realized her confidence in his skills were abundant enough. Perhaps she was worrying about her other problem, she thought next. She brushed a hoof over the scar of her sightless left eye, then used it to cradle her chin on the table.
The idea of telling Habeas that she was with foal still left a sour taste in her mouth. She had no idea how a changeling would react to having a child of their own, much less how they would react to that child being a half-breed. The day that moment inevitably came was clouded with uncertainty. She fantasized every reaction he might give, when, or if, it ever arrived. Euphoria, excitement, mirth, confusion, guilt, lament... even anger, as near-impossible as it was to comprehend him acting. Near.
Persica had her own experience to compare the ideas to. She remembered well when she told her first husband Chantilly Cream of Peach Blossom's inception, all those years back. Compared to her current situation, when it came to her dear daughter... it was just a natural sort of thing, back when she was younger and more naive to life's finer points, and its eventual conflicts expected to come between ponies, and only ponies. The moment itself was one she could never forget; it was as her husband and herself were discussing what to do when the major fall peach harvest came about. The memory of his reaction, slack-jawed shock and stuttering comprehension, upon finally registering the phrase she passed to him at their conversation's end—just a casual, "Oh, and I'm pregnant, Chantilly"—brought her a much-needed smile in this trying time.
Persica's pleasant reverie ended the moment she heard something burbling briefly in her keen ears from the living room not far behind her. To her immediate delight, she recognized it as the distinct sound of a changeling shapeshifting.
Her relief came sudden and swift, thoughts of birdsong and youth and children and telling solemn truths vanishing the instant she stood up from her seat and spun about.
There, entering the kitchen, was Habeas. His movements were sluggish and weary, but he looked whole and well. The changeling spotted Persica quickly, but had yet to utter his greetings when she trotted up to him and enveloped him in a large, firm hug. Placing a deep kiss upon his cheek, her nose next nuzzled against his chitinous face, soft and content hums purring from her smiling mouth.
"Are you alright?" she asked into his ear, as her loving greeting concluded. "How was it?"
"A bit cramped, got a nosefull of dust, but I'm fine. Quite fine," Habeas answered, before placing a gentle nuzzle of his own behind her jaw. Persica took his gesture with suspicion, detecting the traces of discontent in her lover's voice.
"Did you find the boggart's nest?"
* * *
And... there it is. Habeas held his breath as it came back to get an even view of Persica. An image of his encounter with the boggart flashed through his view for a split second. The echoing feeling of touching the foul entity's hand and holding tight as he shook it briefly lingered over what was once his left rat paw, now in natural hoof form again. They came to him like some nasty horsefly bite as Persica asked the question, and he had to fight against wincing in front of his marefriend.
He had taken the deal, repugnant as it was. He still remembered one of his parts of it, where he could not tell Persica of what he found. From somewhere in the back of his head, he could still hear that rancid, chittering laughter Gunter Snagknot uttered when he took his hand and shook it. It struck him with an instinctual sort of dread, and worse than a simple fly-bite, it stung.
"No, I didn't." He lied, head turning to the tiles kitchen floor as self-disgust filled his mind. Lying to Persica felt like a punch to the gut more than anything else, but for her sake he wore only a simple mien of apparent frustration. "I looked everywhere, but there was nothing. No clues. Not... a single thing. Just a lot of cobwebs. And spiders."
Pangs of disappointment also drew Persica's view to the floor. "Darn." She exhaled a mighty sigh. Following it came an easy smile that spread across her face when it came back up. "Well... you did well enough. You'd best not worry about it; we'll get him at some point. If you couldn't find the bugger in the walls, then it probably set up a nest deep beneath the house."
"Sorry," he started again, though apologizing for a new subject. He wrapped a foreleg over his shoulder, moving it tenderly. "I... feel a bit stiff. Nothing that a moment or two of private time will fix, to collect myself and straighten out my joints and pieces. Being cramped in those walls was no picnic, heh. I'll go sort myself out in the bedroom and be back down in a minute."
Persica's expression told Habeas she understood him. "Go do your thing," she nodded. "I'll be down here, waiting."
Habeas smiled back, and after only a moment's hesitation, was off without a further word. When he finished trekking up the stairs and was inside the bedroom, he closed the door carefully behind him and made his way to the center of the room. With no eyes on him and his privacy secured, he started to shift and move his limbs about. All portions of his being stretching, his wing casings and forehooves moved especially about until the latter were again holding the treasure. He brought it in front of him, where he could best see it.
It was the necklace. Even still tainted by some smudges of dust, its luster was something undeniably beautiful to behold, something truly worthy of Persica. He had hidden it within his wings' shell casing the moment he transformed. There he kept it, until he got up here, where he could deposit it somewhere else where Persica would not discover it. The foul boggart swore he would not take it again, under penalty of losing the bet; not until at least he lost this wager upon which so much was staked.
Habeas knew this would be a difficult endeavor. Of course he knew that, it was difficult already! Worse were the words he was looking for. The binding words that would make him hers, and her, his. He had thought of so many in the weeks leading up to this moment, but none felt quite right. His answer evaded him, and he needed to track it down more than ever before.
At least... at the very, very least, he had this. He had his chance once more, but it was now the quest had become outright perilous. He had time, before all this. Now this sacred matter was something he would have to hasten, if he hoped to spare the ones he loved of the issue of an eternal pest.
Habeas had spent so much time with Persica since her first met her. He felt safe thinking that he knew her as well as he knew himself. Somehow, though, all of the pieces of the wondrous relationship they built up to this point still seemed so brief, so fresh. Would she accept his proposition? Would she be ready for the commitment he would be thrusting upon her? And even if he somehow succeeded in earning the apex of her affections, would she understand why he was doing this, or learn of the boggart's wager? Before this whole mess, Habeas had all the time in the world. And now... now he had a month.
Habeas groaned wearily. His shoulder slumped limply against the bedroom wall, his sight not leaving the pendant for even a moment. Part of what he said to Persica was true, about wanting to stretch out and clear his mind. The experiences of clambering through the musty walls of the house and dealing with the boggart itself were also getting to him. He needed to sit down for a while, think things out. Make a plan.
Yes, he thought. Rest, and make a plan. That sounds like a good idea.